There may be just one disadvantaged certification program based on the memorandum of understanding between the United States Department of Transportation and the Small Business Administration, but it would be inaccurate to say the program is standardized … each state can have completely different forms, interpretations and requirements. You can think of it as 52 slightly different implementations of the same regulations. Reading the directions carefully and calling the certifying agency for clarification on anything you don’t understand is highly recommended.

In the last several months, we’ve pursued four additional certifications in states where we’re bidding projects. It has been an interesting experience. A mid-Atlantic state asked us to provide an ownership page for every owner, not just the owners claiming DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) status. To meet this requirement we had to complete another five pages for the remaining owners that hold 29% of our stock … including two pages for the grandchildren, each of whom have owned a whopping 1.5% of the business since January 2012. It is official, these kids are now part of governmental red tape. Another mid-western state required us to submit a form that had to be completed by our financial institution (aka bank). Since we had to supply copies of the loan agreements and the signature cards for all of the accounts, we found it a little odd that our banker had to provide a list of our accounts and who could sign off on them – sort of duplicate documentation. We submitted two New England state applications, one of which was quite short and to the point – this one was actually awarded last week. The other one, we still haven’t been able to determine the status. It may be that they will ask for more information.

In one conversation, the agency representative asked if we could forward a copy of our last home state site visit report. It was news to us that some states actually give a copy of this report to the SDMWVBE (Small, Disadvantaged, Minority, Women or Veteran Business Enterprise) business. Our certifying agency, when asked, said they never share the report with the SDMWVBE. Of course this is the same agency that thinks putting blank boxes on a PDF form is “changing their document”. We still haven’t figured out why so many certifying agencies put out the PDF application form but do not put the check-boxes or text-boxes on the form so you can easily fill it out on your computer. One program manager told us that many people type or hand write the answers. We quietly cringed maybe because we’re a technology firm – but, hand writing on a PDF form? Really? We’ve spent a lot of time drawing boxes on the forms so we can fill them out. We no longer own a typewriter and just can’t bear the thought of someone having to interpret our sloppy handwriting. (Seriously, when people have trouble distinguishing your a from an e or an o, or e from i, it’s time to throw away the pen.)

Some state programs require the business to be registered to do business in their state before you can apply for certification. This generally involves completing an application with the Secretary of State as a foreign business and often requires the payment of a fee and/or a minimum tax. To register you may have to obtain a local agent who is authorized to accept mail and service of legal documents on your business’s behalf. There are several organizations that offer these services for a reasonable fee, if you’re unable to have a local associate or even family member or friend act as your representative.

The keys to getting certified is attention to detail and compliance with the process steps of the agency with which you have chosen to certify. Oh, and not being afraid to ask for explanations or directions!